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Water Today Title December 5, 2022

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Drone opportunities: Training local teams
for operating in remote and northern communities

WT Interview with Joe Henderson, Agile Drones, Part 2

WT staff

WT: Speaking of the technology, how would having a drone in a northern community be a benefit, and what are some of the commercial uses?

Henderson: From a technological point of view, having a drone extends the reach and the presence of the operator and the community benefitting from that operation. The commercial opportunities, being able to capture images, for building maps, for surveying areas, monitoring erosion, storing images for later reclamation; basically, anything from video cinematography to LIDAR (three-dimensional scanning)

WT: Do I need a license to operate a drone if I am in a northern or remote community or on First Nation lands? Are there different types of licenses and what can I do with each license?

Henderson: A bunch of new regulations came out in 2019, which caused a bit of confusion, but it is really simple. If you have a drone that weighs less than 250 g, just a few candy bars-worth of drone, you can fly it almost anywhere, with fewer restrictions than prior to the 2019 changes. Government considers the small units like a toy; no license is required. These small units have a camera like your cell phone, they are impressive pieces of equipment, relatively low cost. We use those for training.

The basic license allows you to fly drones and payloads weighing up to 25 kg. I strongly advise folks to get their license, otherwise, there can be penalties involved. You can fly almost any equipment with a basic license until you get into these big units that fly on an aviation platform.

You can’t fly with the basic license in any type of controlled airspace (or above a crowd of people, or beyond the line of site).

For these operations, you need an advanced license. This is a bit more complicated; it takes more training. You must do a flight review and pass a flight test.

WT: When I go to your drone school, should I attend as part of a team? What do communities need to know, send two or three people to have a fully operational drone crew? How many crew members do I need to do any of this commercially?

Henderson: You don’t technically need a spotter; an operator can go out alone as long as he keeps eyes on the drone at all times. To be fair, in any type of commercial operation, the pilot/operator will be looking down at a controller, or computer, seeing what the drone sees. At this point, you are not following the rules anymore, and in this case, you do need a spotter/technician, to keep eyes on the drone, to monitor people around the perimeter of the drone flight area for safety. If it’s a two-person team, both should have the license, to understand all of what the other needs. I take a spotter with me, or I go as a spotter for another pilot. There is a lot of information that the drone collects, it is also a good idea to have someone that is comfortable with the computer work, the data processing end of the job.

WT: Tell me about when I go to your school, do you cover things like ethics? Everybody thinks “I can fly wherever I want”, you spoke of flight plans, do you have to file a flight plan?

Henderson: It’s a two-part scenario - the flight plan is for advanced operations when you are flying in controlled airspace. Outside of that, you don’t have to file a flight plan. 

In terms of ethics, that’s a great question. This should be always on the drone operator’s mind. This is something that I teach, how to operate in such a way as to assist the community, to empower the community and not spy on the community. I deal with the public a lot when I am out operating the drone, you just have to know what to say to calm somebody if they worry that you are interfering with wildlife, or if they think you are spying on people. 

WT: When a group or individual may have reasons for operating a drone for illegal purposes, collecting information not integral to the stated mission, for unethical surveillance. There are a lot of players in the information space. I want to address this, what is the best way to relate to the community members, how do you deal with this?

Henderson: I view the drone as a privilege to have and a privilege to operate. Not creating mischief with this piece of equipment. We have to make sure that we are training the right person for the job that will take ethics seriously. It is also important that the person training is the person that operates, the drone should not be taken out by just anyone that may want to see what they can see.

Hand out a pamphlet if no one is there, leave your contact number. Be open, be forthcoming when people ask you, be very honest about what you are doing. I personally think you would go to the leadership and show them what you know, and the plan you have in place to respect privacy. You have to observe the laws in Canada with respect to privacy.

WT: Would you recommend that communities send a group for training, with a mentor?

Henderson: Ideally, I don’t like to instruct more than four people in one sitting, just to keep them all engaged.

It’s a very involved learning process, but not a school where you sit all day. The course is very hands-on, and we do look at airplanes also. This drone course is ideal for anyone who might consider a career in aviation later on.

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